Double Booked: Language matters

Hebrew is a language obsessed with sex. Every noun is either male or female and verbs and adjectives have to follow their example. The language allows sexism in places that normally seem innocent, but it is a subtle way of making women feel excluded. Nouns for professions normally have both a male and female forms, but for some reason we prefer to use the male form no matter who might be doing the job. Men never take a moment to think about how that would feel if the tables were turned.

When I was a member of the Jerusalem City Council, all of my letterheads, nameplates, and other official materials used the male form of my title. I decided to change that.  It seemed so simple to me. I am a woman so print me business cards reflecting that obvious reality. The Mayor at the time was so set against me making this small change that he even wrote the Academy of the Hebrew Language (the body responsible for proper grammar and creating new Hebrew words) to get their confirmation that a male title would work for both men and women. As I suspected, he was wrong and after a year and a half I finally got to be a female city councilor.

At that same time, 100% of the secretaries answering the phones at City Hall were women. In spite of this, when someone would call City Hall the recorded message would say in Hebrew “Thank you for calling City Hall. We will help you shortly.” in the male form. There was no chance a man was going to answer the phone after that recording. People were going to wait a few minutes (or usually much longer) and hear a woman’s voice. Why not change that message to the female form?

I was given every excuse under the sun when I suggested changing the message. There was cost or tradition, but nothing that seemed insurmountable. I found a popular Israeli radio announcer, Shamira Imber (the granddaughter of the man who wrote Hatikvah), to volunteer her time to come in and record the message. That seemed to settle the issue of cost and tradition. She gave us a wonderful recording, but in a few days the recording was mysteriously “lost”. Without missing a beat Shamira came back and recorded it again. What might have looked like a stunt paid amazing dividends.

Men would call City Hall screaming about the recording. They would say, “How dare you use the female form. Do no men work there? Aren’t we also Israeli?!” The women on the other end of the phone would answer with equal passion: “If you want to come work here for the same low salaries as us, we will happily change it back.” Being recognized as women gave them the confidence to fight against their terrible work conditions and they went on strike.  Before long, the City caved and their pay and conditions improved.

It might seem like nothing, but in a language that insists on assigning gender to everything it is foolish to think referring to a woman in the male form means nothing. It has the result of making them feel invisible, but with one small change those women felt strong enough to stand up for what they deserved. In short—language matters.

Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.

Comments are an important part of the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments sectionThis blog is part of a special RACBlog series, “Double Booked: A Conversation about Working Families in the 21st Century,” dealing with the many issues that affect working families, and featuring everything from personal stories to policy analysis. Visit the Double Booked portal to read more posts, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #doublebooked.

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Anat Hoffman

About Anat Hoffman

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.

2 Responses to “Double Booked: Language matters”

  1. French is another language in which most nouns have a gender. I wonder if French women have a similar problem.

    Re J LaLone above, isn’t “ha” an article?

  2. This was very interesing. At a teaching service a couple of weeks ago, I blurted out, but I thought there were not genders in Hebrew. I had confused it with “there are no articles in Hebrew.” I will have to check to veriry the truth of this belief. Anyway, in response to my comment in the service, a friend sent this article to me. I must say, I found it most intresting. Thank you for making this information available to us…the late learners. 🙂

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